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Mother Courage at Berkeley Rep

Engagement by Alienation

Bertolt Brecht, in devising his enduring brand of political theater, developed a signature technique -- historification: never referring directly to what he wanted to criticize, but instead using historical settings and characters in order to give the audience the intellectual distance necessary to see things clearly. In the case of "Mother Courage" it's the Nazi's role in starting World War Two in Germany that's the target (the play was written between 1939 and 1941) and the action is set during the Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648,) a war cemented in Europe's collective memory rather like the Civil War is in ours.

The pat (though of course fully justified) response to Brecht by current reviewers is apt to be along the lines of "especially relevant today, with the war in Iraq and memories of 9/11..." and so on. This automatically makes me wonder how Brecht perhaps isn't relevant to American audiences, so I'll get that out of my system first. To begin with, almost all of our wars have been about imperial conquest on distant shores. We've never been seriously threatened at home, and it's difficult for us to understand Europeans' collective memory of approximately two millennia of periodic, protracted, and ruinous wars, usually driven by religious strife. Because we've never experienced this, we lack the rich sense of irony and detachment that is so evident in Brecht's work and that allowed Europeans to survive these calamities.

Having said that, Brecht's real relevance to us today is all the more powerful, as the parallels to today's wars are still quite useful and his impact is still elementally provocative, as befits political theater. His "epic theater", as he called it, seems built for the road, for amateur actors, for the workers -- in short, the people who have most to lose from war, for it's their children who must be the cannon fodder. Berkeley Rep's production at first seems a bit limp -- we want to be moved, to be blown away by emotion, to be taken out of ourselves and entertained. After the play, I realized that this isn't what Brecht is trying to do, and I had more appreciation for the production.

When it comes to performing arts, I like anything that gets in your face and grabs your attention right away. Audiences sometimes remind me of sleepy first graders: you have to be loud and authoritative and clear from the very beginning or lose all hope of making any progress. "Mother Courage" certainly does this -- not only does the action burst upon your consciousness immediately, the play's central conflict and trajectory is delineated in the beginning of the first scene. Mother Courage, played confidently and slyly by Ivonne Coll runs a canteen in the Swedish Army, selling anything and everything an army needs, to any soldier who needs it. She also has three children (all by different soldier fathers) who help her with the business. They encounter two befuddled army recruiters charged with enlisting a certain quota of soldiers by a certain date. Of course, they don't want the boots or rations or ammunition that Mother Courage has for sale, they want her two strapping sons. And so the die is cast: like a Greek tragedy, you just know what's going to happen (I won't give it away, but it does happen, and worse).

Mother Courage is more than happy to make a living off the war (it's good for business!) but damned if she's going to give up her own flesh and blood. Her character is an instant indictment of our own tolerance for our own pointless and ruinous war, which is still, basically, a religious war, after all. We're happy to do business as usual, and let someone else's kids get their legs blown off by "insurgents" or "terrorists."

This production features original music by Gina Leishman, a tasty brew with distinct flavors of Klezmer, Latin, and cabaret, built on a base of Kurt Weill. As a composer, I would find it quite a challenge to follow in the footsteps of Paul Dessau and Weill, and Leishman does it with élan. Her poignant, brash ballads keep the flavor of the lyrics perfectly, yet are not slavishly imitative. There are beguine and tango rhythms; songs in odd meters like seven; plenty of diminished, minor sixth, and minor ninth chords; and casual, sparse, but elegant instrumentation - tuba, accordion, piano, small drums and percussion instruments. I particularly liked the staging - musicians wander in and out of the action, sometimes doubling as actors. The music is also well suited to actors who aren't great singers, partly because of its sprechtsing quality, which emphasizes the acerbic poetry in the lyrics. The two actors who can sing, however -- David Collins (as a soldier) and especially Katie Barrett (as Yvette) -- do wonderful musical things with Leishman's material. One of Yvette's ballads in particular is the musical highlight of the show, with a brittle, bitter, and slightly goofy beauty (she's a cross between Edith Piaff and Pippi Longstocking) that gets to your emotions despite it all.

The production design is deliberately unsettling. You're told it's an historical play by the actors, who bear placards announcing scenes, and step out of character, through the "fourth wall" to announce scenes, but Mother Courage's gypsy canteen cart is made from an old Jeep, and the walls of the set are scrawled with urban graffiti, done by the actors in the background of all the scenes. And the costumes are impossible to locate precisely in a time period. Soldiers wear doughboy helmets, grotesque masks, pants made from moving blankets (my favorite) and body armor of indeterminate design and origin. This is all in line with Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt: the "alienation effect," reminding the audience that the play is an abstract representation of reality. It's also fitting for a street theater on the move -- with period costume, the play would become hopelessly bogged down in doublets, velvet pantaloons, seven league boots, tights, ostrich feathers, silk cravats, astonishingly weird black hats, and all manner of 17th century sartorial overload.

Berkeley Rep's production is uneven, and didn't rock my world emotionally, but I liked it for its music, its spontaneity, its disorienting design, and its fidelity to Brechtian method, which is reflective, intellectual, and provocative, without being moralistic or remotely sentimental. By giving us a main character who exposes our own ambivalence, and effecting a distance between the audience and the material, Brecht allows us to make rational judgements about our irrational behavior as a culture with regard to our wars.

Mother Courage
Runs through October 22
at Berkeley Repertory Theater
Box office 510.647.2949
Tickets $33 - 49